Palestinian Protesters in Gaza 'Aren't Protesting the Embassy Move'?

Demonstrations in Gaza were inspired by the move of the United States embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the Nakba.

Published May 16, 2018

In mid-May 2018, dozens of Palestinian civilians in Gaza were killed by the Israeli government while protesting the controversial  decision by the United States to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The move coincided with the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, a day that commemorates the displacement of Palestinians when the state of Israel was founded.

Jarring reports and images of Palestinian demonstrators being showered with live ammunition from Israel Defense Forces (IDF) weaponry were juxtaposed with photographs of smiling members of United States President Donald Trump's administration opening the new embassy in Jerusalem — a move that is deeply controversial because Jerusalem is a contested city. The move has been decried by members of the international community working to broker peace between Israel and Palestine as counterproductive to those efforts.

Amid news coverage saturated by images of bloodshed in Gaza, Avi Mayer, spokesman for the Israeli advocacy organization the Jewish Agency posted a tweet in which he claimed the protests were a ruse by the de facto political authority in Gaza, Hamas (which opposes Israel) to use Palestinians as human shields and "breach" the Israeli border in order to infiltrate the country:

The tweet caught the attention of comedian Sarah Silverman, who has been vocal in her criticism of the Israeli government's use of deadly force on Palestinians which resulted in 60 deaths and thousands of injuries. She asked if there was independent verification of Mayer's claims:

Mayer, a former spokesman for the IDF, appears to be conflating the Palestinian's method of protest with their goal, akin to claiming that, for example Black Lives Matter protesters in the U.S. openly say they want to march down a freeway rather than protest police violence, when they in fact have been known to employ the protest tactic of marching on freeways with the goal of ending police violence.

He linked to a 10 May 2018 Times of Israel article to support his claim. But the article itself actually confirms the protests were at least in part a response to the embassy relocation:

The Gaza leader of Hamas said Thursday he hopes to see hundreds of thousands of Palestinians breach the border fence from Gaza into Israel at protests to coincide with next week’s US embassy move to Jerusalem.

In his first major briefing to international media since becoming head of the Gaza terror group in 2017, Yahya Sinwar implied he would like to see thousands of Palestinians crossing into Israel as part of the culmination of more than a month of protests.

Asked what he wanted to see from protests on Monday and Tuesday, Sinwar pointed out Israel has never specifically defined its borders.

“What’s the problem with hundreds of thousands breaking through a fence that is not a border?”

Sinwar said he hoped Israel would not shoot at what he called “peaceful” protests.


Monday’s demonstration will cap six weeks of protests and coincides with the US move of its Israel embassy to Jerusalem and the date when Palestinians mark 70 years of “displacement.” Two-thirds of Gaza’s 2 million people are descendants of Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes during the war surrounding Israel’s establishment.

Ahmed Abu Ratima, a Gazan freelance journalist, wrote in a 14 May 2018 op-ed for the New York Times that he helped launch the movement called "The Great Return March" that led to the protests with inspiration from the December 2017 announcement by President Trump that the embassy would be moved to Jerusalem. The march was meant to promote the negotiation of a solution that allows "our two peoples to live together peacefully and equally":

The seed that grew into Gaza’s Great Return March was planted Dec. 9, just a few days after President Trump announced he would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Palestinians long have held onto the dream of Jerusalem as our own capital, or at least as a shared capital in a country that offers equal rights to everyone. The feeling of betrayal and distress in Gaza was palpable. To clear my head, my friend Hasan and I took a walk along the border, which we do every now and again.


Still, despite the response from Israeli snipers, I continue to be committed to nonviolence, as are all of the other people “coordinating” this march. I use quotation marks because when a movement becomes this large — attracting what we estimate to be as many as 200,000 people on Fridays — it cannot be completely controlled. We discouraged the burning of Israeli flags and the attachment of Molotov cocktails to kites. We want peaceful, equal coexistence to be our message.

We have also tried to discourage protesters from attempting to cross into Israel. However, we can’t stop them. It is the action of an imprisoned people yearning for freedom, one of the strongest motivations in human nature. Likewise, the people won’t go away on May 15. We are intent on continuing our struggle until Israel recognizes our right to return to our homes and land from which we were expelled.

Israeli fact checkers at The Whistle also weighed in, explaining that while the claim was more about perspective than fact, all sides including Hamas and the IDF had made public statements acknowledging the protests were planned to coincide with the embassy move on 14 May 2018 as well as Nakba:

Palestinians in Gaza have been protesting for weeks leading up to the fatal mid-May demonstrations. When the demonstrations started at the end of March 2018, hundreds of Palestinians were shot with live ammunition and more than a dozen people died from their wounds.

The Gaza Strip is a small, impoverished and densely-populated region bordered by Israel to the east and north, Egypt to the south, and the Mediterranean Sea to the west. It is beset by sieges and periodic conflict with its far better armed neighbor Israel, which administers control over the travel of its inhabitants as well as its infrastructure and boundaries. It is sometimes referred to as "the world's largest open-air prison."

Bethania Palma is a journalist from the Los Angeles area who has been working in the news industry since 2006.